Edinburgh TV Fest: ITV Exec Says 'X Factor' U.K. Is 'Enormous' Even Without Simon Cowell

Director of TV Peter Fincham also announces the return of an McKellen and Derek Jacobi sitcom "Vicious" and discusses "Downton Abbey," "Broadchurch" and "Splash."

EDINBURGH – ITV director of TV Peter Fincham on Friday said it "would be great" if Simon Cowell returned to the U.K. version of The X Factor, but said "it is an enormous program with or without Simon."

He declined to comment on the severance payment from BBC he got several years ago after a recent report that the former BBC One controller's deal was among a series of payments that may get scrutinized after a report identified a slew of payouts that were higher than contractually promised. "Honestly, I don't want to talk about it," Fincham said. He also didn't comment when asked if he was considering paying back any of the BBC money. The BBC has been reviewing its practices after a finance watchdog said some top executives received bigger-than-necessary severance deals in recent years. 

Speaking here at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, sponsored by the Guardian, Fincham on Friday also said one of the biggest challenges for networks these days is finding new big mainstream entertainment formats.

Asked if X Factor in the U.K. needs Cowell back as a judge, Fincham said: "No, no, I wouldn't put it that way." With Cowell on ITV's Britain's Got Talent and the U.S. version of X Factor, he said: "We understand and are completely realistic about it."
Addressing weaker ratings for the show in the past couple of seasons without Cowell, Fincham simply said that "juggernauts will fluctuate."

He declined to predict when X Factor and BGT may have to come to an end. "I'm not in any way calling time on the existing big entertainment formats," he said. Fincham said though that "Britain's Got Talent has been in exceptionally good health," and that X Factor potentially has "many years" left in it.

Discussing new entertainment formats, the ITV TV boss said: "Harder than drama is finding entertainment formats that work in the mainstream space." He said he and others in the industry are always looking for "big bold ideas that have mainstream appeal."

Asked about celebrity diving show Splash, he said it may have gotten a "mixed critical reception," but the producers made good changes early on, and Saturday night was a good night for "slightly more in-your-face entertainment." With ITV bringing the show back in January, Fincham called it "a charming entertainment show."

Fincham on Friday also got a second Cowell question. Why did his production Food, Glorious Food not draw big ratings? Fincham called it a "very well produced show," but said: "I guess…maybe the elements didn't quite come together to strike a cord with the audience."

Fincham on Friday also announced that sitcom Vicious, starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple, will return for a second season despite mixed reviews and ratings that came in behind hopes. It is from Will and Grace writer Gary Janetti.

The ITV TV boss called it "a very bold sitcom with a wonderful cast." What went wrong in the first season? "I don't think the issue is what went wrong with it," he said. "It's about a show like that finding its feet." Asked about likely changes or tweaks, Fincham wouldn't disclose details, but he said "I'm sure Vicious will evolve." He added that it has "richly drawn lovable characters - there is lots of more to do with it."

Mentioning the return of Downton Abbey, Fincham would only say that there are "loads and loads of stories" left in the show and he was really confident about it.

Asked about the return of crime drama Broadchurch for a second season and whether it would be more of the same success formula used in season one, Fincham said the new season "won't be formulaic redo." He didn't provide details though.

While he acknowledged enjoying DVD box sets and binge-viewing just like other TV fans, Fincham said that Broadchurch also highlighted the continued value of linear TV schedules. "I think there is a pleasure in that as well," he said. "That's what makes it the water cooler television."

Asked about ITV's award-winning documentary that first revealed sexual harassment allegations against late BBC host Jimmy Savile, Fincham said "this was a big call," especially when he heard that the BBC itself had passed on airing the allegations. "That gave me pause," he said before highlighting that the doc made the company proud though.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai